The right’s moral panic over “grooming” invokes age-old homophobia

A renewed moral panic, stoked by the far right and trickling into mainstream conservativism, has come on the heels of an abrupt shift in the fight for gay rights in America. Following the recent passage of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and a wave of other homophobic and transphobic legislation throughout the country, current right-wing rhetoric has focused on accusations of “grooming.” The term — which describes the actions an adult takes to make a child vulnerable to sexual abuse — is taking on a conspiracy-theory tone as conservatives use it to imply that the LGBTQ community, their allies, and liberals more generally are pedophiles or pedophile-enablers.

Attempting to reframe the controversial Florida law, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw described it as “the Anti-Grooming Bill” in early March, tweeting that if you’re against it, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” Those familiar with QAnon will recognize this bizarre leap in logic. Pushaw adopted language that QAnon conspiracy theory believers and the related #SaveTheChildren crusaders have used to imply that liberals are, if not pedophiles themselves, advocates of pedophilia.

This rhetoric has long existed among fringe conspiracy-theory-mongers and extremists, but Pushaw’s usage helped turn grooming into a mainstream conservative talking point. Fox News has run several segments devoted to pedophilia throughout March and April. During the same period, numerous Fox pundits began describing the behavior of parents and teachers who want to allow children to express their transgender identity as grooming; one Fox and Friends guest suggested children were “being ripened for grooming for sexual abuse by adults,” while America Reports guest Charlie Hurt said affirmative care for trans children “goes beyond just predatory grooming” into “psychological torture.”

Accusations of pedophilia were also a refrain during the March 2022 confirmation hearings for new Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. After Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) falsely accused Jackson of giving child pornographers unusually lenient sentences and “soft” treatment, other conservatives, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway ran with the idea that Jackson and anyone who supported her confirmation was supporting or sympathetic to pedophilia.

The result of this fear-mongering is grim: Vice reports that users of extremist right-wing websites like Patriot.win recently tried to publicize the address of a school superintendent who they claimed was “grooming” children. In March, the superintendent placed a school nurse on leave for allegedly making inappropriate statements on Facebook about a student who may have been receiving gender-affirming care.

Claiming the superintendent was “supporting leftist grooming in her schools” by implicitly protecting the welfare of a potentially trans student, one Patriot.win user wrote that she “needs to be executed by our judicial system.” Other users made violent references to hangings and gallows in response to various debates over trans identity. There’s concern that these online threats could lead to real-world physical violence; as Vice noted, many of the platforms pushing this current narrative are home to extremist communities, including some that were involved in planning the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Framing homosexuality as a wicked specter and queer people as pedophiles is one of the oldest narratives in the homophobic playbook; proponents of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and other recent anti-gay and anti-trans legal actions across the US have been all too happy to recycle it. Only now, due to the paranoiac tendency of the modern right wing, it’s also being expanded and applied to LGBTQ allies, to educators whose work gets caught in the cultural crossfire, and to liberals writ large.

Put simply, the right’s “grooming” accusations allow it to attach evil to anything it sees as a threat to its values.

What is “grooming?”

Grooming is the process by which adults make children or young people vulnerable to sexual assault through compliments, isolating tactics, and other actions that shift the child’s circle of trust and increase the adult’s power over them. Some on the right do seem to be using the dictionary definition of the term, borrowing ideas and language from decades of moral panic equating homosexuality to pedophilia. But “grooming” seems to be functioning more broadly right now as a catchall label for other flavors of right-wing alarmism.

First, there is “grooming” turned up to 11, invoking the term in its most conspiratorial sense: grooming children to be victims of a high-level global sex cult — a conspiracy theory that converges with various other right-wing homophobic and anti-Semitic conspiracies. This involves belief, or performed belief, in an elaborate high-level system of grooming, kidnapping, pedophilia, sexual abuse, and sex trafficking carried out by elites in government.

This conspiracy theory is what led to Pizzagate and the subsequent real-world attack on a Washington, DC, pizza parlor in 2016; Pizzagate then evolved into QAnon. QAnon’s main tenet involves the claim that powerful Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities are kidnapping children, both for sex trafficking and to harvest their glands to make youth serums. The “harvesting the blood of virgins for immortality” trope comes to us straight from medieval hysteria over witches and alleged female serial killers. QAnon has straightforwardly reproduced this trope, and come shockingly close to mainstreaming it.

Increasingly, though — and perhaps most worryingly — conservatives also seem to be using “grooming” to mean left-wing indoctrination generally. This idea suggests that educating children on certain political issues like the struggle for gay and trans equality (or as many right wingers frame it, “gender ideology”) is just as dangerous, or even exactly the same, as “grooming” them to be pedophile victims or victims of an international sex cult.

None of these fears make rational sense. A teacher educating students on queer or genderqueer identity does not make that teacher likely to be a pedophile about to prey on children. There also remains zero evidence of a powerful pedophilic sex cult run by Democratic politicians, let alone local schoolteachers. That’s not to say that organized child abuse and systems of trafficking don’t exist, but trying to make a causative link between liberalism and pedophilia requires intentional reality distortion by the lawmakers and media voices making these claims.

The thing is, grooming accusations aren’t concerned with making sense; they’re about stirring up fear, anger, and hysteria — which is why they sound exactly like the kinds of fringe conspiracy theories that have been around for centuries. The new pedophile conspiracy rhetoric is essentially the same as all the old pedophile conspiracy rhetoric, but with an added layer of wrongness.

The new Satanic Panic is the same as the old Satanic Panic

The mythical association of the occult with terrible fates befalling children began to take distinct shape during the Middle Ages. Medieval fairy tales from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Hansel and Gretel” are full of children encountering terrible witches; many of these tales also function as coded anti-Semitism. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales invokes the trope of ritualistic child murder at the hands of a sinister Jewish cabal.

The threads of arcane rituals, anti-Semitism, and child endangerment are interwoven and embedded in many early stories, and sometimes they spilled into real-life conspiracy theories. The anti-Semitic belief that Jews were ritually murdering children became known as “blood libel,” which exists both as a term for ritual murder as well as a metaphoric expression of the idea that the Jewish people crucified Christ. Accusations of ritual child murder, usually accompanying accusations of witchcraft, cropped up throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes leading to anti-Semitic riots.

The core themes of these tales have endured in Western culture for hundreds of years, but they enjoyed a rebirth of sorts in the late 20th century. The explosion of hysteria-fueled attention to these narratives, known as the Satanic Panic, can be traced to two bestselling books that were both ultimately discredited. 1972’s Satan Seller, a debunked false memoir by a Christian evangelist named Mike Warnke, recounts Warnke’s completely fabricated youth as a high priest engaged in unspeakable satanic rites, including child murder and sexual assaults. His “memoir” spawned a number of copycat “conversion” narratives written by young men fresh from the counterculture, claiming to have discovered Christianity after childhoods raised in dark Satanic cabals.

Next, and far more influentially, came 1980’s Michelle Remembers, co-authored by controversial psychologist Lawrence Pazder and his wife Michelle Smith, who was originally Pazder’s patient. Pazder claimed to have regressed Smith using hypnosis and uncovered her horrific childhood memories of occult abuse at the hands of the Church of Satan. Michelle Remembers would ultimately be thoroughly disproven, but not before it gave rise to a widespread cultural belief in “satanic ritual abuse” and was used as a textbook by law enforcement when investigating allegations of such abuse. Though entirely false, Michelle Remembers directly influenced the wrongful imprisonment of dozens of people throughout the ’80s and ’90s and continues to provide a template for current conspiracy theories about child abduction, ritual abuse, and secret sex cults.

It’s also important to note the evangelical aspect of these tropes in the modern era, where the line between allegory and literalism gets especially muddy. Millions of evangelical Christians have been taught to think of themselves as engaged in a metaphysical war, for which they must “put on the full armor of God” to root out evil in their midst. It doesn’t help that decades of “Christian fantasy” writing have transformed real-world social issues into matters of angelic and demonic warfare, and taught Christians to see themselves as battling directly for souls against evil liberals.

American politics has always tended toward hyperbole — but figurative language is turning increasingly literal

The Satanic Panic never went away, and its concerning influence on politics in the US makes sense. In a seminal 1964 essay, historian Richard J. Hofstadter delineated what he called “the paranoid style of American politics” — a tendency toward hyper-vigilant, alarmist belief born from a combination of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Hofstadter succinctly outlined the longstanding history of American political figures claiming the existence of various “secret cabals,” shrouded “in every possible disguise,” who are “at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions.” He observed that the conservatives of the 1960s felt particularly dispossessed: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Add “satanic ritual abuse and pedophilia” to this description and you have a boilerplate for modern right-wing conspiracy theories about liberalism, with plenty of anti-Semitism baked in. The sudden swerve toward the mainstream that the grooming accusations have taken aligns with decades of propaganda stating that American educational and social systems are all secretly socialist, communist, or otherwise out to destroy conservatives.

What’s more, the element of urgency around saving children lends the conspiracy theorists an implacable moral righteousness. As Hofstadter argued, “what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil,” and compromise is unacceptable. What could be more absolutely good than protecting children from the absolute evil of pedophilia?

There are deep ironies in all of this. The first is that in their urgent zeal to “protect” children from the evils of homosexuality and gender-affirmative care, conservatives are proactively endangering queer and trans children. Decades of research have established the link between negative social environments and poor LGBTQ mental health and the link between allowing kids to safely express their sexuality and gender identity and positive mental health. (And here are 13 more studies just to fully drive the point home.)

Failing to provide safe, supportive environments for LGBTQ and questioning kids leads to high levels of depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicide attemptssignificantly higher rates than straight and cisgender kids. In other words, the most vulnerable children, the ones most in need of protection, are the ones who are directly imperiled by the recent wave of homophobic and transphobic legislation, and by the pernicious rhetoric associating their identities with pedophilia.

The second irony is that the notion of “grooming” — slowly conditioning someone over time to accept a belief or a state of being that could harm them — arguably applies to the grooming conspiracy theory itself. Conservatives, even the ones closest to the fringe, didn’t just wake up en masse one day and decide to accuse all liberals of being pedophiles. The ideas behind these latest conspiracy theories have taken years to circulate and gain traction throughout right-wing communities. Over time, as conservatives’ trust in mainstream journalism, academic research, and expert authority figures has eroded, a strain of alarmist thinking has increased, fueled by public figures like Donald Trump.

In such an environment, misinformation can flourish and conspiracy theories can take root. What we’re seeing now is the latest iteration of years of toxic fringe beliefs and a growing willingness to exchange outlandish hyperbole for literal beliefs. We’re seeing this play out in real life in increasingly disturbing ways and violent extremes, from familial alienation to the January 6, 2021 riot — events that do not and cannot take place overnight. We might well say that a decade of reactionary right-wing politics has groomed many otherwise rational conservatives to accept the latest rhetorical escalation, and its grim real-world impacts, without a second thought.

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